Global Ministries

The United Methodist Church

Connecting the Church in Mission

The Surprising Activity of the Spirit
Denise Honeycutt*

The Spirit is always moving to sweep the Church into a new mission age. With openness and gratitude we await the leading of the Spirit in ways not yet seen as God continues to work God’s purposes out in our own day in a new way.
—Theology of Mission: The Spirit’s Surprising Activity section

I grew up in the small town of Locust, North Carolina, about 30 miles and 150 years from Charlotte. It that community, almost everyone knew your name and close-knit extended families spent much time together. Although I only had one younger sister, we had 31 cousins whom we spent hours with at my grandparents’ home, playing in the fields and creek together while our parents sat visiting in the house. The wonderful supporting presence of growing up in a small town and the challenging struggles of fused family systems taught me much about the power of community.

Like everyone I knew, we were churchgoers. I sang in the choir, participated in mission groups, and learned to tithe. I watched my mother jot down the names of the sick as they were lifted up during worship. She would write notes when she got home, often slipping a few dollars into a card before sealing it. I loved church and came to understand that it was more than just what you did inside the walls of the church building—it was how you lived in relationship with others once you left.
                        The Rev. Dr. Denise Honeycutt, Global Ministries’ executive director of the Center for Mission Innovation.
                        Photo by Kathleen Barry/United Methodist Communications

When I was six years old, one of my Christmas gifts was a red-letter, zip-up Bible with pictures. I still have it today. We have a video of me and my sister opening our gifts that Christmas. When I opened my Bible I hugged it tightly and then held it up to the camera with a big grin on my face!

As far back as I can remember I had an active prayer life in which I knew myself to be loved by God at the deepest part of me. I was intrigued by and drawn to the life of Jesus. His compassion for and with the poor and those located on the margins fascinated, confounded, and comforted me.

After reading (in my red-letter Bible) how the risen Christ appeared to the disciples, I decided that I too would like to see Jesus, in person. After all, I reasoned, I was a isciple—even though I was just a young girl. So why shouldn’t Jesus “appear” to me too? “You have not, because you ask not” the Bible said—so I began asking.

I would pray and pray, saying “now Jesus when I open my eyes, I want you to be standing here in front of me.” I would open my eyes and—nothing. I reasoned that Jesus didn’t appear to me because I was only a child and he didn’t want to frighten me. So I reassured Jesus I was ready and that he wouldn’t scare me. I continued to pray to see Jesus, but when I opened my eyes—nothing. This request to see Jesus remained a part of my prayers for some time before receding into the background of my life in God.

An Epiphany
A few years later, at 13, I once again resumed this prayer to see Jesus and still—nothing. I thought that perhaps God was afraid that if I saw Jesus I would tell people about it and end up on the Phil Donahue TV show—which would embarrass my parents and become a scandal in my little community. So I assured God that I would tell no one, it would just be between me and God—still nothing.

In between all this praying I was just a normal kid who went to school, argued with my sister, and got into trouble when I didn’t do my homework. I happened to find my greatest joy and truest reality in my relationship with God early on in life—for which I am forever grateful.

When I was 16 years old, I had a favorite spot on my grandparents’ property where I would sometimes go when I wanted to be alone and think about my life. It was a place where I could pray and journal. On one of those days, I remembered that rather naïve prayer of my childhood. But now, I thought “I am all mature.” So I thought, why not try it again? “Loving God, let me see Jesus,” I prayed. And when I opened my eyes, there in front of me was the most beautiful patch of woods. It was as if Jesus said to me: “Denise, here I am. If you want to see me look at the trees, look at the people around you, look at those who are hurting, look at this world I have created. I am always active and present, right here in front of you, if you have eyes to see me.”
                       The Rev. Dr. Denise Honeycutt welcomes Global Ministries’ board members to a session on the
                       work of the new Center for Mission Innovation, October 2016, at Global Ministries’ headquarters
                       in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Kathleen Barry/United Methodist Communications

It was an epiphany—a powerful transforming moment in which the God inside me became the Spirit in front of and surrounding me. The surprising activity of the Spirit is at work and present in our world.

Strength in Community
This simple but dramatic yearning to continue to see and participate in the life of the risen Christ has led me to a life of service, a contemplative life of seeking to be grounded in Christ, a life of looking for and often “running to keep up with,” as Elaine Heath named it, the active Spirit at work in our world.

As an ordained elder who has pastored churches in the Virginia Conference, a Global Ministries missionary who taught biblical studies and theology in Nigeria, a conference director of Mission and Global Justice, the head of UMCOR, and now the executive director of the Center for Mission Innovation, I have experienced great joy in being guided by that loving spirit.

Being a follower of Jesus necessitates a life of justice seeking, for often in the marginalized and oppressed, in the voices that cry out for justice, and in those whose voices have been silenced, we will find Christ most vividly. God’s compassion for all of life calls for each of us to embrace a life of simplicity, which honors the sacredness of the earth and those who are most harmed by our careless abuse of the earth’s resources.
                        Members of Global Ministries’ board of directors, Carmen Vianese, Cindy Saufferer, and Carol Toney,
                        explore the Center for Mission Innovation at the Atlanta headquarters, October 2016.
                        Photo by Kathleen Barry/United Methodist Communications

Today, in a world of deep distrust and violence that hosts the largest number of migrants ever, where climate change displaces and harms the most vulnerable, we must explore models of local ministry with the poor and bring the global and local church together to hear and share mission innovations and theologies.

God Shows Up
My prayer is that I continue to see Jesus—to recognize that it is God’s mission that we serve. Our theology of mission reminds us that the spirit of God is always moving to sweep the church into a new age of mission. The Center for Mission Innovation (CMI), where I now serve, exists to actively pursue the work of the Spirit as we seek and are transformed by God’s innovative mission. The CMI is a forward-thinking, forward-leaning unit, working to provide the church a “best practices” learning model, and an innovative “laboratory” for re-envisioning and redefining 21st-century mission practice, with emphasis on being “glocal”—both global and local in the same stroke. Our work will creatively explore new mission theologies and practices while employing the disciplines of gleaning, harvesting, learning, and sharing the wisdom of the global church so that we might all more fully participate in God’s good work in the world.

My philosophy in life continues to be “Yes”—yes to being surprised by the Spirit who dares to show up, in unexpected places like the trees and the majestic ocean, in the unique ideas of young laity and clergy, in the homeless and the marginalized, in loud voices, and in the whispered prayers of a child—give us eyes to see you, loving Spirit!

The Rev. Dr. Denise Honeycutt is an ordained elder in the Virginia Annual Conference. Her husband, Pat Watkins, a missionary, currently serves as the executive director of Caretakers of God’s Creation. In addition to her work with UMCOR and the Virginia Annual Conference, Dr. Honeycutt also served on Global Ministries’ board of directors for eight years.

Copyright New World Outlook magazine, Winter 2017 issue. Used by permission. Email the New World Outlook editor for more information.

The Center for Mission Innovation
You are invited to participate in CMI’s work by utilizing the following resources, sharing your ideas about innovators in your area (please email David Logeman, and visiting the center in Atlanta for next-steps training.

Fresh Expressions

Caretakers of God’s Creation

Missional Wisdom Foundation

Roving Listeners

Fresh Expressions:

Roving Listeners

Landfill Harmonic

Missional Wisdom Foundation


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